Teachable Moments--Finding Them This Holiday Season Rebecca Mannis, Ph.D.

What's a teachable moment, anyway? And how can we use them?

Posted Nov 29, 2010

Teachable Moments--Finding Them This Holiday Season

Special Guest Post by Rebecca Mannis, Ph.D.

The holiday season is upon us, and this break from school and work routines offers parents a unique opportunity to focus on using home, family, and vacation time to create teachable moments. Our children spend most schooldays learning ‘The 3R’s’ and acquiring new information. While this is essential, the current academic trend toward mastery of content at the expense of the learning process is a concern to parents, educators and psychologists alike. The upcoming holiday break is a precious time when families can learn by doing, can revisit their values systems and can share experiences for personal growth.

A parent serves as a child’s first, most important, and lifelong teacher. The open-ended nature of family time during the holidays, regardless of the place it is spent, provides a perfect backdrop for parents to teach and to encourage development. Parents posses the most opportunity to encourage real-time learning, whether it is intellectual, aesthetic or personal. This is the essence of a teachable moment.

As described in the 1950’s by scientist and educator Robert James Havighurst, a teachable moment occurs when that “which is learned at a specific point makes achievement of succeeding tasks possible.”  Havighurst and other twentieth century thinkers recognized that parents, as the greatest experts about their children, could identify and use critical real-time events as they naturally appear in a child’s world to enhance development.  Russian developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky explained that when parents use naturalistic opportunities for learning, they help children to connect ideas or increase mastery. These “scaffolded” experiences, often unplanned but seized upon by savvy adults, help shape children’s problem solving skills and ability to use them in other situations with greater ease, success and confidence.  Building upon this, others such as Jerome Bruner and Howard Gardner remind parents that they can guide their children to better understand their own thought processes (also referred to as metacognition). Since parents know their children’s learning style, temperament, and interests so well, they can use teachable moments to help the children test hypotheses, think critically, and evaluate their beliefs about ethical or social issues.

Family time over the holiday season is an ideal opportunity for families to relax and enjoy one another’s company while also using these special times as ones when teachable moments can be created. How can we accomplish this on a practical level? We don’t plan to don a beret in the spirit of Jean Piaget and put our children ‘under the microscope’ as we carve our turkeys! There are many ways that parents can identify teachable moments at vacation time in a manner that feels natural, that adds to the family experience, and that is fun.


Opportunities for Spiritual, Personal and Emotional Development

Whether lighting Chanukah candles or turning on electric Christmas tree lights, these teachable moments offer a chance to discuss parallel themes among seemingly different religions and to consider how these rituals might have developed. How do these holidays parallel Hindu and Sikh Diwali, by incorporating the essence of light and warmth? Is it a coincidence that these holidays cluster in seasons when the calendar moves toward shorter days? In what ways can we carry the messages of increasing light in the world, whether throughout the winter months or throughout the year?

A converted schoolbus, painted white and covered in colorful text, recently rolled up Broadway on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. This vehicle piqued curiousity--and is a wonderful example of the teachable moment. Hillel the Elder, a Jewish sage from the first century BC was once famously asked to encapsulate the essence of the Bible while standing on one foot. To this he responded, “Do not do to others as you would not want them to do to you…and go forth to learn!”  Might Hillel have still scribed that message on this bus in modern-day America? This portable ‘teachable moment machine’ offers a terrific chance for parents to wonder along with their children. Who wrote these messages? What life experiences inspired their selection? How this bus might be used? What message might I choose paint on a window should the driver pass a palette and paintbrush my way? 

Using Structured Visits and Trips to Enhance Growth

Family time over holiday break is often a time to travel, so parents can incorporate ways to explore the ‘How” and “Why” of new adventures as they enjoy one another’s company in different venues. Museum educators have developed exhibits and family-friendly materials that offer accessible tools for thinking families.

The Getty Villa in Malibu, California (fashioned after an ancient Roman Villa)  http://www.getty.edu/visit/ offers  an engaging “Family Forum” room, http://www.getty.edu/education/kids_families/programs/family_forum.html, as well as  colorful, informative, and thought-provoking Art Detecive Cards, which guide young visitors to key pieces throughout the villa and campus.  For example, this Art Detective card encourages families to compare the sound patterns of two fountains the garden that replicates one found in ancient Roman villas and to consider the impact that the sounds would have on the outdoor experience.

 If you are in The Big Apple this holiday season, your family may enjoy The Jewish Museum’s http://www.thejewishmuseum.org/  Harry Houdini exhibit, which similarly is designed to inform, engage and extend the learning experience for parents and children alike. 

 The Family Guide designed for the exhibit provides cues to critical thinking and discussion about the immigrant experience. Why do people need to balance being with others like them while also belonging to society at large? It also provides thought-provoking questions about people’s tendency to congregate in order to observe fantastical experiences (whether the large crowds that gathered to watch his amazing escapes or current internet-based presentations).  How do these group opportunities serve to help people affiliate and feel a sense of connection? A podcast can help you plan your family’s visit: http://itunes.apple.com/us/app/houdini-at-the-jewish-museum/id399627808?mt=8

 Staycation Opportunities for Learning and Growth

According to Vygotsky and his colleagues, teachable moments exist not because of the grandeur of the context but because of the beauty of the moment that caring parents or teachers seize. As families stuff their turkeys, prepare latkahs or bake holiday cookies, settle into their sofas or pack their bags, the key ingredients for meaningful family time and learning lie right before them. For parents remain the greatest role models, teachers, and sources for ongoing counsel to children. 

I hope that this holiday season provides you and your family with opportunities to enjoy the present and to savor the experiences you share. For these will both help your children grasp the values that matter most to you and that that they can internalize for a lifetime.

 A future blog will discuss ways that parents can use vacation time to both create teachable moments for problem solving and chances to reinforce ‘The 3 Rs ‘ through sports and in strolls down the neighborhood streets. Please contact Dr. Mannis via e-mail, rebecca@ivy-prep.com , to subscribe to this series.


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